“The island behind death”: The dark history of Trump and Kim Jong Un’s summit location

Image: Capella Singapore/Handout via Reuters
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The much-anticipated meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is happening today (June 12) in Singapore.

Leading up to the event—which Trump canceled and revived in the course of a week—it was widely expected that the summit would take place in Singapore’s Shangri-La, which has hosted its share of high-profile political events.

But the White House surprised many when it announced the meeting location would be the Capella hotel in Sentosa, a pirate hangout-turned-millionaire playground just south of the main island.

‘The island behind death’

The island had gone through several name changes before it became known as Sentosa, which means peace and tranquillity in Malay. Up until 1830, it was called Pulau Panjang, literally translated as long island. It was also known as “the island behind death,” or Pulau Blakang Mati, with Blakang Mati also being the name of a hill on the island.

Singapore’s National Library notes there are varying accounts for its ominous name. One obvious explanation refers to the island’s history of piracy and bloodshed while another account points to the island’s status as a paradise of warrior spirits. There was also a mysterious epidemic that nearly wiped out British troops as well as Malays, Chinese, and Bugis, who were fishermen and farmers from Sulawesi in Indonesia.

Singapore fell in the hands of Japan during World War II in 1942. At that time, Japanese soldiers turned a beach on the island into an execution ground, where they killed numerous Chinese during a “cleansing” operation. The soldiers would question Chinese men between 18 and 50 years old and gun down those they deemed anti-Japanese. They also imprisoned 400 Allied troops and gunmen on the island.

A view of Siloso Beach on Sentosa Island in Singapore June 4, 2018. Picture taken June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su - RC120829F740
A view of Siloso Beach on Sentosa.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su

Today, the island is an urban tropical paradise for the wealthy. After the government named it Sentosa in 1970, it gradually became a home to luxury hotels, entertainment parks, and the country’s first casino.

Joggers pass the largely vacant Cape Royale condominium in Sentosa Cove on Singapore's Sentosa island August 19, 2014. There's an eerie silence at night in Sentosa Cove, the man-made island resort billed as Singapore's answer to Monte Carlo and the only place in the country where foreigners can buy landed property. Dozens of houses - complete with their own private yacht berths and multiple swimming pools - sit empty while few lights are on in the apartment blocks overlooking the marina, a few kilometres away from Sentosa's giant casino. Picture taken August 19, 2014. To match SINGAPORE-PROPERTY/ REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: BUSINESS REAL ESTATE) - GM1EA8T0D6U01
A luxury condominium on Sentosa.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su

Five-star security

A 500-hectare (2-sq-mile) island, Sentosa is about a 15-minute drive from the main island of Singapore. The limited ways to get on the island—via cable car, monorail, a pedestrian causeway, and a vehicle tunnel—make it ideal for security. The leaders will reportedly be guarded by members of Nepal’s Gurkhas—known for their fierceness and the khukri, a traditional long, curved knife—recruited by the Singapore police.

A view of Sentosa Island in Singapore June 4, 2018. Picture taken June 4, 2018.
The cable car connects Sentosa to the main island of Singapore.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su

With the South China Sea as its backdrop, Capella is a five-star resort that sits on the southwestern side of Sentosa, isolated from most other hotels on the island but near a Universal Studios and golf club. For the summit, Sentosa has been declared a special security zone where no drones and flammable materials will be allowed.

Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the Capella, with its restored colonial buildings, opened for business in 2009. There are 112 rooms with prices ranging from around S$600 ($450) a night for a basic room to S$10,000 ($7,500) for a three-bedroom manor. A recent search showed no rooms available at the property until Saturday, June 16. The hotel has played host to celebrities like American singers Madonna and Lady Gaga.

On the grounds of Capella, one can spot freely roaming peacocks. The hotel says the birds are a symbol of new beginnings, which could bode well for the historic meeting taking place.

While Trump and Kim are meeting at the Capella, they’ll be staying on the main island—Trump at the Shangri-La and Kim at the St. Regis, according to the Straits Times. The two are a nine-minute walk away from each other.